Nidhi Sinha

Aug 30, 2021

6 min read

How to talk in the 2020s

A guide to new media language tools

When the habit of FaceTime surpassed the occurrence of face time, our immersion into the digital world was complete.

Did Apple know the import of naming its video calling feature ‘FaceTime’ when it launched? Did anyone think GIFs could become a utility, not just a frivolity, to keep emotions moving in our suddenly static lives? Could text have become the medium of choice in our celebrated oral culture? Not to forget, did you think emojis could have spawned the next generation of crossword puzzles?

Tools of the new world: New Media Languages

Emojis, GIFs, Memes have been around for a while. But the year of social distancing gave them a real reason to exist, as private messaging took over from traditional social media and our screens had to convey more emotion, context and meaning than we usually demand from it.

Private internet corners ruled our world in 2020

The language of new media is the language of the private internet

New media language tools

The early language of the internet came from public communication platforms like blogs, websites, and more recently, social media. But as private messaging came along, public internet became a platform for performance. This made room for sophisticated ways of one-to-one and one-to-many grammar to evolve on private internet corners like email, WhatsApp and finally direct messaging channels of social media.

1. The GIF that keeps on giving

A rich visual library of moods

GIFs are possibly the richest visual library of moods and emotions expressed VIA gestures, facial expressions and many other non-verbal cues. In other words, all emotions/ moods/ states that words cannot express. Especially the written word.

From Greetings to Feelings

Compared to 2019, the usage of GIFs did not only reach a new peak, but also found highly contextual personal use cases, like expressing a strong and complex emotion such as a “tight hug” and “cuddling” through gifs to convey real feelings without physical presence.

Compared to this, our engagement with gifs earlier was fairly primitive as animated greeting cards for Diwali, New Years, birthdays and so on.

Google Trends data indicates a new, interesting usage of GIFs

We see ourselves in the GIFs we share

We are a people constantly bingeing on slick media; Netflix/ Instagram have ensured we are well fed and hungry for content the next day. The same content, when condensed into a lo-fi 8 bit mute media format is stripped of its fiction and used abundantly in real life contexts.

In fact, Netflix creates GIF libraries for a lot of its shows, making its characters a part of people’s digital lives.

Because life doesn’t come with background music and uniquely staged circumstances. But can it come with a ready reckoner of reaction GIFs? Of course.

2. Meet Emoji 2.0


Emojipedia’s analysis of 68 million tweets reveal a steady decline in the use of the “happy” smiley face.

Positive sentiment emojis, which contributed the maximum volume of emojis used on social media, are at an all time low post 2020. Meanwhile, complex sentiments like the ‘pleading face’ are surging.

We can hardly blame ourselves, given that the emojis *really* looming in our heads is *mask* and *microbe* — two previously obscure keyboard personalities that are enjoying their time in the spotlight.

The human capacity for hope, however, does not allow our keyboard representatives to stay too grim. If you want to map the evolution of human representation in the digital age, look no further than the emoji keyboard. We got genders, skin tones, hair colour, family structures, professions, flags that include (or are in the process of including) all cultures and ideas. Emojis are our inclusive, politically correct, utopian cousins. They have a heart of yellow gold.

And so, as we humans swallowed the bitter pill of life behind a mask, the mask emoji got a smile behind its veil. It had to.


3. Say MEME!

Memes are modern folklore: they pack cultural information in highly contagious little capsules that people can’t get enough of. A good meme points to (or points out) something so real, that once you’ve seen it, it cannot be un-seen. You might even keep it in your pocket for the next time you need to describe that exact situation/emotion, and before that you might share it because you know lots of people would relate to it. It’s real, it’s funny, it’s human.

Humanity’s biggest shared experience is also it’s most memed one.

It is therefore, not much of a surprise that the ordinary, everyday history of the pandemic has been written in memes. Our biggest shared experience happened because of a global pandemic. Staying locked in has been a forced mimetic action that created the rare opportunity for a common perspective.

Making the times a minefield of memes: as a way of coping with and gaining perspective on a situation (and state of mind) we might have struggled to describe with words alone.

Modern Muhavras

Depending on which corner of the internet you are on, there is a universe of memes suited to your life experiences and interests. It’s a unique language for communities that have shared experiences, one that captures a whole felt experience in a sentence and a visual.

In many ways, memes are modern muhavras. Like everything modern, they can be personalised to your experience.

The Language of 2020s

Today a conversation on WhatsApp/ Messenger/ Instagram might begin and end with a meme, it might be entirely made up of GIFs or generously sprinkled with emojis. For a fundamentally oral culture, the shift from the good old face time to FaceTime has forced us to work out a new kind of grammar using tools that we never thought of as ‘tools’ to begin with.

As our digital lives become second nature, we will surely consume lots of slick content sitting on our couch, but our thumbs will always stop for that (humble) lo-fi meme or gif and then immediately get to work, furiously typing the response it deserves.

A version of this article has been published on TOI blogs. Read it here: